“I’m a naturalist with a camera rather than a photographer.”
Jack Perks is a wildlife photographer based in Nottingham, UK. He is well known for his underwater images, especially those of the different species of British freshwater fish. November this year, I had the pleasure of asking him some questions about his photographic work. Here you can read his answers.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
My name is Jack Perks and I’m based in Nottingham and I am primarily a wildlife photographer.
What sort of photography are you specialised in?
I specialise in underwater photography but even in that I specialise in freshwater photography – quite a niche subject to go after.
What is your background as a photographer?
I started off more into nature, cliché to say really, from before I can remember when I was a kid. When I was 16 I did a B-tech course at college, picked up a camera and then went to university in Falmouth and did a degree in marine natural history. But I’m a naturalist with a camera rather than a photographer, I guess. I’m more interested in the wildlife than the cameras. But you obviously have to know the cameras to be a photographer.
“I’m a naturalist with a camera rather than a photographer.”
Why did you choose Nottingham as your base, especially after having studied in Falmouth?
I’m from Nottingham, born and bred. Also, Nottingham is a very central county in England. It means that if I need to go north, south, east, west it doesn’t take me enormous amounts of time to get there. And from a strategic point of view, there’s lots of wildlife surrounding me. I’ve got the Peak District in Derbyshire, I’ve got the Lincolnshire coastline, I’ve got all the rivers in Nottinghamshire for my underwater-stuff. There’s lots of businesses and organisations not too far, so it made much more sense. Cornwall is a beautiful county and I would have loved to stay there but you’re very isolated in Cornwall. And there is not a big industry there, for anything really, certainly not for wildlife photography. So, it just made more sense to come back.
You do a lot of filming as well – is that more of a side project?
I used to be just stills and that was all I did. But I realised that there’s more money in film and most SLR cameras have video on them. So, it’s not that difficult for a photographer in this day and age to switch between the two. And I’m finding now that it’s about 50/50 – half my time now is filming and the other half is stills. It’s becoming more and more part of what I do.
What does the job as a nature photographer entail next to the actual taking of images?
I think, certainly in this day and age, you’ve got to really have a mixed bag of things to do. Gone are the days where you could just be a photographer for a magazine or just work for one organisation. I think you’ve really got to do a bit of everything. So, I teach workshops, I do lectures at universities, I do commissions for companies, I do filming, I sell prints, I have a book out… Basically, I do lots of different things because no one of them could really sustain me on its own. Having my fingers in lots of different pies keeps me going.
“I think, certainly in this day and age, you’ve got to really have a mixed bag of things to do. Gone are the days where you could just be a photographer for a magazine or just work for one organisation.”
How would you describe your style?
I guess all photographers have a style of photography even if they don’t realise it. And I suppose mine’s a little bit non-conformative because I just do pictures that I like to take. Which might sound a bit simple but for example I really like using the fisheye lens. And I use that for everything – whether it’s underwater or above land. You get the distortion on a fisheye lens but it’s not a problem for me. Some photographers would say “oh, I don’t like distortion” but I’m fine with it. I basically do pictures that, one, I like taking and, two, I know that I can make some money of. Any they are my two priorities really. So as long as I fit those criteria that’s what I do.
“I basically do pictures that, one, I like taking and, two, I know that I can make some money of.”
What kind of camera equipment do you use?
I think everyone thinks professional wildlife photographers have bags and bags of equipment and that they’ve got all the latest most expensive stuff but it’s not always the case. I mean, for a large part of my career I had semi-professional camera gear that was all second hand. It’s only recently that I got a full frame camera which is a D750 Nikon. And now I’ve gone full frame I don’t think I could go back, funny enough.
I have a 300 mm 2.8, which is a second hand one. And the underwater camera gear that I use is a D7000 Nikon camera that comes in a housing. Which means that it’s kept dry and I can do all the pictures.
I’ve got little GoPros, tripods and little camera trap stuff, Bushnells, so lots of little bits and bobs but not shed loads of camera gear really.
I also use a D7000 and often have issues when using a higher ISO – do you have similar problems?
Yes, that’s why I went for the D750, the full frame, because the D7000 when it first came out was a brilliant little camera but it’s rated quite badly now. And the ISO, as you say, is terrible. Once you go over 500 it’s like a jigsaw with the noise and the grain. When I got the D750 I was pushing the ISO to 2000 and it was still fine and that’s a big relief for early morning photography, overcast day photography which the D7000 didn’t cope with at all.
Next to the camera – what do you think is the essential piece of equipment you have?
I tend to be fairly minimalist with what I take when I go out on a shoot. One of the things with long lens-photography, that I found invaluable, is a monopod. I used to be against using monopods – not for any particular reason, I just thought they were useless. But when you’ve got a big heavy lens, carrying that all day takes its toll. And a monopod takes the weight off it and that makes such a difference, particularly for me as I’m not built like a body builder. Also, you can pan around easily, they’re nice and mobile, they make carrying the long lens easier, as you can shove it on your shoulder and they’re cheap. I think mine cost me £ 17. So, they’re not a lot of money but they’re good.
And weather clothing is essential as well. It sounds obvious but make sure you’ve got thick gloves on if it’s cold, waterproofs on if it’s going to rain. The biggest tip I can give for photography is, be comfortable when you’re out taking the pictures. Because as soon as the cold sets in and you’re thinking “oh, I don’t want to stay here” you’re going to miss the shot or your belly starts to rumble. I normally have a mars bar in my bag, or something like that, just to keep me going. Sounds silly but you will stay out longer if you’re comfortable and the longer you stay out the more chance you have to get a good picture.
“Be comfortable when you’re out taking the pictures. Because as soon as the cold sets in and you’re thinking “oh, I don’t want to stay here” you’re going to miss the shot or your belly starts to rumble.”
Could you describe your workflow?
I take the photograph and then I’ll edit it. I don’t edit heavily, I just do little adjustments. I do a little bit of cloning but not ridiculous amounts. If there’s a twig in the corner I might clone that out but I’m not adding extra rock in or putting loads of trees in the background or anything like that. I adjust contrast and things.
From there Lightroom’s really good for keywording. I’ve only been using Lightroom relatively recently but that’s made it much easier to keyword and catalogue images.
And then from there it’s not so much me approaching the magazines, it’s more that some magazines send out emails, some of them advertise on social media. They might put “We’re looking for a picture of…”. And then, if I’ve catalogued it I can find that nice and easy and can ping it across or send them some samples.
When you go out do you go out to take pictures, do you have certain ideas of the image you want to take?
When I first started, I used to just go out with no idea and would just see what happened. Now I prefer to plan quite a bit. I have a shot in my mind and I’ll try to go out and I’ll try to get as close to that as I can. For example, I want to go and do Bitterns at Attenborough (Nature Centre), I’ll think, where’s the best place to find them going to be? Where’s the best place to make use of the light going to be? What kind of camera gear am I going to need to use? How am I going to frame it? Do I want it close up? Do I want it small in the frame? Just try to think of all the options and I think that pays dividends because you get closer to the better images that you’ve got in your minds.
“When I first started, I used to just go out with no idea and would just see what happened. Now I prefer to plan quite a bit. I have a shot in my mind and I’ll try to go out and I’ll try to get as close to that as I can.”
Do you have a favourite photo of your own?
I guess one of my most successful photos isn’t even a wildlife one, it’s a picture of two Jack Russells play-fighting which I took by chance. I saw the two Jack Russells playing and the mum had the puppy up against the wall. Then the photo got turned into a meme and just went viral, all over the internet. It’s quite nice to see an image do really well, just, I’d rather it had been a more traditional wildlife one than Jack Russells. But yeah, that’s probably one of my favourite ones.
Do you have a photo that you dream of taking one day?
In the UK, I still haven’t really got a good underwater picture of a salmon. So that is on my hit-list.
But internationally I’d love to do Great White Sharks. That would be amazing too. I’d probably do it in a cage, I don’t think I would be brave enough to swim along but just being underwater and getting a photo would be spectacular.
Do you have any advice for people interested in nature photography?
Wildlife photography is a difficult profession to get into, it’s not an easy one at all. But there’s always opportunities out there if you look. I find social media really crucial for that sort of thing and for connecting with people.
The main thing, I would say, is get some sort of niche, specialise in something. Because the trouble is, there are so many talented photographers and a lot of them don’t even make money out of it, they just do it for themselves. They are doing things like birds and mammals and whatever and that’s all covered. But how many slug photographers are there? How many slime mould photographers or moss photographers? It doesn’t sound exciting but I bet there are very few photos out there so there is probably more of a market than you think for that sort of thing. It’s photographing the things that haven’t really been photographed before, specialising in it and making it your own.
“The main thing, I would say, is get some sort of niche, specialise in something. […] It’s photographing the things that haven’t really been photographed before, specialising in it and making it your own.”
And that’s sort of what I did with freshwater fish. Before me, people have done it, I’m not saying I’m the first one to do it, but I think I’m the first person whose really got in there and done a lot of freshwater fish and specialised in it. And I’ve made that into a nice little part of my work now. So if you want to get into wildlife photography, find a niche.
Overview – Jack Perks
Working location: Eastmidlands, UK
Speciality: Underwater Photography
Jack’s book: Freshwater Fishes of Britain